Critical Distance

Ken Gregory: performance and audio installation: Ken Gregory
1 April – 7 April, 1994

a response to the exhibition by Jack Lauder

Sound is how the mind perceives the world’s vibrations. Hearing is our one sense that is omnidirectional and sleepless. It is also the one sense that our minds spend the most time blocking out. We hear what we want to hear.

Our conscious priority is usually sight. If, for example, I hear the word “foghorn”, my mind forms a picture of a harbour, a lighthouse, boats, mist, etc., but I have to concentrate to mentally recreate the sound of a foghorn. Picture always comes before sound for me. When Ace Art hosted an evening of audio performance and an audio installation by Ken Gregory, it was, paradoxically, the spectacle of its creation that made me more conscious of how sound works.

Gregory’s performance set consists of a lamp, a table on which photoresistors are located, the computer, and all the technical paraphernalia required to make it run. Sounds stored in the computer are triggered by the intensity of light and shadow that fall on the photoresistors.

The sounds are tiny grains taken from audio recordings. For instance, if a “clang” is recorded, a few milliseconds that fall between the “n” and “g” might be the grain used for the performance. In visual terms, if we look at a beach from a distance, it appears a uniform beige. From close up, we see the variety of white, red, black and brown. Through a magnifying glass, we can then see the intricacies of each individual grain. When this is applied to sound, it goes from a single tone to an incredible range of frequencies simultaneously existent within a microsecond. These are the bases for the sounds that are programmed into the computer and then called upon by the interplay of light and shadow.

“Cheap Meat, Dreams and Acorns” and “When I’m Calling You” are performed using the lamp and photoresistor. The shadow is cast by Gregory’s hand movements. The movements seem sculptural, as if he’s working an invisible piece of clay. As the sounds emanate from the computer, I’m stricken by the physicality of it.

Sound, not having a visual presence, is something that I don’t normally perceive in concrete terms. But sound is the movement of air, it comes in waves of varying size and I find myself through the performance becoming more aware of its physical attributes. Through the mediation of the computer, Gregory’s hands are actually pushing the air in the gallery space.

It is strange how abstractedly we think about sound. “If a tree falls alone in the forest, does it make any sound?” It certainly pushes air in the process. The initial cracking of the trunk pushes the air in short, fast waves, and when it lands on the ground it pushes the air in long, slow waves. The world vibrates continuously, whether we are aware of it or not. During the performance I became more aware of sound as an aural phenomena rather than an intellectual one.

In “Ethereal Flying Guitars”, Gregory uses one of those virtual reality gloves to trigger the computer. His whole body comes into play, using a ten foot space in front of the computer, lunging, seeming to grasp sounds out of the air. It’s as if there is an expanse of invisible strings in front of him. In this piece, the communication between the artist and his tool seems most evident.

It is communication. The computer’s sound responses are not totally predictable so it becomes a partner in the creative process. On a musical instrument, C sharp is always C sharp and the musician is always in control and making the choices. Although Gregory has programmed his computer, he cannot predict exactly which sounds it will access. It is an active tool, whereas an instrument is a passive tool. When humans learn language, the person teaching them is not endowed with the ability to know what they are going to say. When we talk with someone we know well, we can approximate their reactions, but not necessarily predict their choice of vocabulary. The same applies to Gregory and his computer.

I sense that there are two conscious beings on this stage. The computer is capable of perceiving light and responding with sound. What is consciousness other than a highly organized network of energy capable of perception and response?

I begin to think that technology is not the antithesis of nature, but the next stage in its evolution. In fact, this is a machine that is responsive to light, a key factor in the growth of most organisms on Earth.

Ken Gregory’s installation, “germ originally Monstrous caused”, is an extension of the principles of the performance, but allowing the audience to become creators of the work. Photo-resistors are mounted on the walls of a darkened space with speakers in each corner. Gallery-goers are equipped with flashlights to play with the photocells and trigger sounds from the computer.

I experienced the installation in two different ways. One was at the opening with a crowd of people and the other was alone later in the week.
At the opening, I take my flashlight, find a resistor and start running the light back and forth across it. Meanwhile, others are doing the same thing with their flashlights and resistors. The hall becomes filled with sound and I’m aware that I’m partially responsible for it, but I can’t figure out which sounds I’m creating and which sounds are created by others. Sound (and my actions in creating it) become so convoluted that I lose all sense of action and consequence. I know that I’m doing something but I become frustrated in not knowing where I fit in the scheme of things. As a result, I try to make my movements with the flashlight more harried and chaotic in an effort to produce something distinctive. However, there is a delay between the light and the sound, and I don’t know from which speaker it will be heard. A butterfly’s wings cause a typhoon in India.

Gregory says in his artist’s statement that it is “an audio installation that focuses on the discovery, illumination, recognition and understanding of childhood Monsters locked in our unconscious which are not normally accessible to consciousness but effect our behavior.”

For me, the experience at the gallery opening is more like the creation of the adult nightmare. My personal identity becomes lost in the Monstrous whole.I know that I fit somewhere in this environment, but my actions seem insignificant, I’m not being heard, nobody’s listening and I don’t know what I’m saying. In my effort to overcome this, I try to block out everything else except for what is really pertinent to me. So it’s like growing old and narrow-minded.

A few days later, I go back to the installation and, fortunately, I’m the only one there. I take my flashlight into this darkened space and I’m taken aback by the first sound that I trigger. It is a deep low sound, and because it has been treated in the way that it has, it is unrecognizable and unearthly. Then I hit another photoresistor, and this time the sound is more subtle, breathier, the next is rhythmic. The sounds become layered, almost musical I imagine, (since I have no musical talent, my standards are low) but finally I’m beginning to develop an idea of what I’m doing. It doesn’t mean that I can predict in any way what sounds I’m going to create but at least I know how to work with it.

On leaving, I think about the artist’s statement and wonder if I found any monsters in my subconscious. I don’t think so, but I did find lots of things that happen in my subconscious that are not normally accessible to me. When I leave the gallery, I hear footsteps, I hear the sound of the bus, I hear the car that’s two lanes over with no muffler, I hear all these things that I normally filter right out of my conscious mind. For a while, at least, sight has taken second priority to my sense of sound.

Jack Lauder is a Winnipeg video artist.